The Shift to Remote and What's Ahead for Fall: Your Turn

Readers share "feasible" ideas for a fall instructional model with students on campus but physically distancing. And the particular challenges this spring for instructors and students at institutions that use the quarter system rather than semesters.

May 6, 2020
 
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This week I turn my column largely over to you, faithful readers.

You're on the ground doing the good, hard work of teaching or caring for students or leading your departments or institutions.

So we take it seriously when you disagree with assertions we've made or have ideas to share that provide alternatives to ours.

Below you'll find several responses to articles "Transforming Teaching and Learning" has published in recent weeks, which I hope will inspire more discussion about how colleges, instructors and students should view what they've encountered this spring and what might lie ahead for the fall.

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At the end of my column last week, I asked readers for their best thinking about what an "in-between" fall term -- neither fully virtual nor fully in person -- might look like. I admitted to struggling to see how colleges might provide instruction to some or all of their students (especially undergraduates) if they were on campus but still required to physically distance (legally, because states demanded it, or ethically, because, well, it might be the wise, safe thing to do).

Several people responded to the query in my column and on Twitter, where I posed a similar question. Comparable discussions have unfolded on the POD Network Listserv and elsewhere, frequently accompanied by doubts about the wisdom or viability of such arrangements. Some of them are related to educational issues such as the potential safety of faculty members (as my colleague Colleen Flaherty raised in an excellent Inside Higher Ed article Monday), but many are about the practicality of housing and feeding students in such an environment and of ensuring that hundreds or thousands of independent (often young) adults behave responsibly.

A couple typical comments along those lines:

Not that doesn’t radically increase faculty/staff load, work for students who live more than 50 miles from campus, or seriously jeopardize staff safety.

I am advising faculty to plan for two fall scenarios: 1. All-online, or 2. Starting on campus, moving to online under crisis conditions, just like this semester. Any attempt to create an "in-between" would result in scenario 2.

The responses below focus just on the instructional piece of the puzzle. I offer them in the interest of sharing the wisdom and, I hope, spurring more discussion. I can't say I come away any more persuaded than I was that most residential campuses can accommodate hundreds or thousands of students safely for all involved. But it's clear faculty and academic staff members are thinking creatively about how they might serve students well if their campuses open and the situation requires them to.

I proposed to our school leadership team that we go to a split schedule on a daily basis starting in September -- half the school in the morning and half the school in the afternoon, which would limit each class size by 50 percent for physical distancing protocols. More work for the teachers and instructors in the short term, but they will all still have jobs. This would be accompanied by a dynamic and interactive remote learning platform to enhance student mastery. Any master timetabler worth her/his salt could easily draft up a timetable that works -- technology allows for such a wonderful outcome. Yes, a split schedule would make for long days for the faculty, but the long-term prospects of keeping students in school and a strong revenue stream far outweigh any short-term issues.

Phil Hill, Jeanette Wiseman and I recorded a podcast episode about fall planning called "Considering Hybrid (Flexible) Models":

https://mindwires.com/episode-1-hybrid-flexible/

-- Kevin Kelly, San Francisco State University

HyFlex offers some interesting possibilities. I've been reading up on it. http://blogs.onlineeducation.touro.edu/what-is-a-hyflex-course/

At my university there has been discussion of moving many classes to a hybrid in which teachers meet with students in person one day per week and have virtual class another day of the week. Very large lecture courses would move fully online, but many of the smaller classes would be able to meet and still maintain social distancing protocols. Since large lecture courses would be online, the spaces typically used by them would accommodate medium-sized classes so students could spread out. The move to hybrid classes would also stem the crush of students on campus as only about half of the normal classes would be meeting in person on a given day. Consideration is also being given to all on-campus resident students having their own single dorm room to promote social distancing. This obviously would not allow the typical number of students to reside on campus, but would allow some.

My latest idea to hold classes in a (somewhat) safe manner is an enrichment hybrid model (thanks to a colleague for helping provide a somewhat appropriate name for this). In this model, campus is opened, but didactic classes remain online and in-person enrichment activities (no new content) are offered by faculty during the scheduled class time and students are cohorted to provide for social distancing -- half the class can attend the enrichment activity on Tuesday and the other on Thursday, for example. Students that are high risk can solely participate online if that is their choice without additionally burdening the instructor, and it doesn't really single out faculty that may be high risk and would like to remain solely online. Should there be a second wave, classes would already be online, helping to maintain consistency for students. My concern "with the solution being meeting with half the class or a third of the class at per day of class" as originally posted is the additional work that this could pose on faculty as each course is essentially turned into two or three mini classes if 1) the class time is being used to share new content and 2) in order to meet contact hours there must be interactivity and instruction online anyways as they're only in their seat half or one-third of the time.

-- Katherine Fisne, Marywood University

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In recent weeks, several readers have asserted that much of the news media coverage about the COVID-19-affected instruction this spring has focused on the many institutions that made a midsemester switch from in-person to remote classes.

That ignores, they point out rightfully, the not-insignificant number of colleges and universities that still operate on quarters instead of semesters, and the special problems they and their students and instructors faced.

Marilyn Edelstein, an associate professor of English at Santa Clara University, described in an email how things have unfolded at her university, where the transition to virtual instruction happened not over spring break, in the middle of a term, but in the final days of a winter quarter and just before a brand-new spring term began.

Most of the articles I have seen about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education -- and especially on faculty and students -- have been based on what appears to be the default assumption that all U.S. colleges and universities are on the semester system. Perhaps this reflects a general East Coast bias in national discussions of higher education. But many colleges and universities -- especially here in California, including most of the University of California and California State University campuses but also many private institutions -- are not on the semester system but rather on the quarter system, which typically means there are three approximately 10-week-long quarters (plus summer sessions): fall, winter and spring. Thus, our experiences of reshaping our courses to be online-only have been radically different.

At the private, Jesuit university where I have taught for many years, we were notified at 5:00 p.m. on Monday, March 9, that starting the next morning -- Tuesday, March 10 -- all of our classes would have to be moved online. We do not offer any online courses for undergraduates during the academic year, although we do offer some during the summer. So with about 15 hours’ notice (or a bit more for those of us teaching later in the day on Tuesday or teaching on Wednesday), we had to jump into action to reconfigure our classes for what was actually just the final week of instruction to be online-only. For most of us, that meant trying to learn all we could in a day or less about how to teach online. For some of us, that meant relying heavily on Canvas discussions and email for the last week of our quarter. Most of us also had to redesign our final exams, scheduled during the week of March 16, to work online. For some faculty, that meant figuring out ways to proctor online exams, too.

On March 11, 2020, my county (Santa Clara County) became first in the country to issue shelter-in-place orders; my state, California, became the first state to issue these orders a few days later. So faculty and students suddenly had to deal with radical changes not only to our teaching and learning, but to life in general. Students suddenly had to move out of our residence halls during the last week of winter quarter, and faculty were supposed to stay off campus.

For faculty, the most critical difference between those of us teaching on quarters and those teaching on semesters was the need for us to plan our upcoming, starting-from-scratch spring quarter courses for remote instruction with a whole new set of students whom we would never even meet. And we have received often contradictory advice from administrators and technology folks (as well as from higher education articles and websites) about whether to make those courses fully asynchronous or synchronous, or a blend of both. For those who opted to take the dominant advice to do fully asynchronous courses, that would mean they would never even see their students during our current spring quarter -- which runs until mid-June.

And, although our academic technology, media services and faculty development staff were providing incredible amounts of support, for the vast majority of the faculty at my university who had never taught online before (and, in many cases, had never wanted to), including me, we have found it incredibly labor-intensive, time-consuming, stressful, frustrating and disconcerting to teach whole classes of students whom we will never meet or talk to in person, even if we opt to use Zoom or other videoconferencing tools for some of our class sessions or for office hours (as I am doing, blending synchronous and asynchronous teaching).

Those who teach on semesters -- many of which are ending soon -- were well into their spring semesters when all instruction was moved online. They had gotten to know their students fairly well by then and had met with students frequently inside and/or outside the classroom.

My university did decide to turn the first week and a half of our spring quarter into an “instructional preparation period,” so faculty and students had about a week to learn how to teach and learn online. Our spring quarter classes formally began on April 8, so we are at about midquarter now. I have a class with 28 students, and for my once-a-week Zoom sessions, I can’t even see all the students onscreen at the same time on Zoom (since the limit is 25 boxes per screen). My students have never met me, and I’ve never met them. Most but not all of my students join the weekly Zoom sessions, and I can see photos of all the students on my roster. But this teaching experience has been unlike any other I have had or would want to have. My university and our faculty value close personal attention to students and meaningful interactions between students and faculty both inside and outside the classroom. Most of our undergraduate classes are relatively small (with under 30 students), and many are primarily discussion-based.

Teaching a quarter-long course to a screen full of little boxes containing images of students I have never met is no substitute for teaching in person (and for understandable reasons, some students choose to participate on Zoom by audio only, so I and other faculty may never even see their faces). I have spent and continue to spend countless hours researching how best to teach online, a attending technology and online teaching workshops, and communicating with our technology folks about using the various technologies available to us, and I’m doing this while I’m still only in the middle of a new quarter. Almost all our students went home in mid-March and are taking a full load of classes this spring with faculty they have never met and may never meet, in courses that began and are running online-only, and while dealing with new family, housing, financial, technology and/or health challenges plus all the social and emotional challenges we all are facing during this pandemic.

Having half or a third of a semester moved online with little notice is very different from having an entire 10- to 11-week-long quarter moved to online-only from its start to its finish with very little notice. Thousands of faculty and hundreds of thousands of students across the U.S. at quarter-system colleges and universities have had to deal with some overlapping but also some radically different challenges than those at semester-system colleges and universities.

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